Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Choosing the Right Critique Group

by Jean Henry Mead

I recently formed a mystery writer's critique group with authors whose work is similar to mine. I hadn’t taken part in one since 1999, when I joined a large online group comprised of novice writers. As a journalist for more than a decade, making the transition to fiction was a real challenge. My years as a police reporter was a plus when I began writing mysteries but my prose was too terse and lacked description. So feedback from the group made the difference. The downside was that there were so many members in the group that my writing time consisted of critiquing their manuscripts. My lesson learned was to find a few like-minded writers whose work I admire.

How do you form a good critique group? If you write mysteries, don’t invite a science fiction writer to critique your work. It’s obviously not a match because the genres are so different. Even someone who writes mysteries may not be compatible. If you write cozies, a crime writer is not a good choice and you run the risk of boring your critique partner(s). Choose a small group of writers who are experienced with your subgenre and who enjoy it. Many books are genre specific, such as commercial romance novels, which have a common structure.

Select critique group members who can be flexible. You need reactions to your work, not what someone else thinks you should have written. And don’t join a critique group if you're sensitive to criticism. Some critique members insist on stark realism while others demand strong female characters and happy endings. Some may think you write too much dialogue and not enough narrative. So you must take criticism with a grain of salt. Toss whatever doesn’t apply over your shoulder.

Above all, choose fellow critiquers who don’t have an axe to grind or envy your publishing successes. Writer Nancy Kress has said that some people are less objective than others, “due to stubborn personality traits. Some people must find fault with everything in order to bolster their own superiority. They’re a bad source of constructive feedback. Conversely, others have such sweet natures that they hate to offend anyone. They will tell you everything in the novel works beautifully, even if it doesn’t.”

It’s your manuscript and you don’t have to accept every tidbit of advice, but at least listen with an open mind. Your fellow critiquers haven’t spent months with your characters and plot, and can be more objective, so take advantage of their expertise.

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